• First Female University Professor in Canada

    Kimberly Glassman

    The first woman on McGill University's academic staff, the first woman to attain the rank of Professor at a Canadian university, and founder of McGill University's Genetics Department.

    Carrie Matilda Derick was born in 1862 in Clarenceville, Canada East (now Quebec). Her grandfather was a United Empire Loyalist who had settled in the Eastern Townships in early 1783. Derick started her education at the Clarenceville Academy in her hometown, which differed from other schools at the time by offering courses in Political Economy and Principles of Government using American textbooks. It was considered a very practical education intent on imparting American values to Canadian children, an unsurprising choice since Derick's mother was of American heritage and the family lived close to the town of Vermont, where the border between the U.S. town and the Canadian province of Quebec was often ignored. Botanical sketches found in her childhood home indicate an early interest in botany.

    Always the academic, Derick began teaching at the Clarenceville school when she was only 15; she later received teacher training at the McGill Normal School in Montreal, graduating in 1881 as winner of the J.C. Weston Prize and the Prince of Wales Gold Medal. Though she would pursue botany and genetics, as a polymath, Derick generally excelled at most things. One of Derick's teachers even wrote to her mother, “I expect that [Carrie Derick] will get to be a Miss Professor.” In 1887, Derick enrolled in the McGill University Faculty of Arts at the age of 25 and graduated three years later, as a first class honours student, with the highest grade in her year. Her cohort included two other notable Canadian women: Elizabeth Binmore and Maude Abbott. Upon graduating, she was also awarded a number of prizes in zoology, classics, and the Logan Gold Medal in Natural Science. By 1892, Derick was teaching at the Trafalgar Institute for Girls, whilst working as a part-time demonstrator of botany at McGill University, which made her the first female member of McGill's instructional staff. That same year, Derick began her master’s degree in botany under the same professor who had hired her, Professor David Penhallow. Throughout her degree, Derick maintained her two jobs and also spent her summers at the Wood’s Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.

    After graduating, her supervisor recommended her for the full-time position of demonstrator, but the McGill University Board of Governors rejected the idea, wanting instead to employ and remunerate her accordingly for a lower rank position usually offered to men just completing their B.A. degree. However, Sir Donald A. Smith, an advocate of women’s education at McGill, ensured she was paid what she was worth and convinced the Board to assign her the role of Lecturer in Botany and Demonstrator in the Botanical Laboratory. All the while, Derrick also studied at Harvard University over the course of three summers; at the Royal College of Science, London, in 1898; and at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, over a period of seven summers. Derick received a grant from McGill University allowing her to take a leave of absence from 1901-1902 to study at the Universities of Munich and Berlin, and the University of Bonn in Germany. Although Derick completed the research required for a PhD she was not awarded an official doctorate as the University of Bonn did not confer women PhD degrees at the time.
    In 1904, after pointing out the lack of recognition and pay raises afforded her during her eight years at McGill University, she was promoted to Assistant Professor, which put her comfortably on track for academic tenure. In this position, she created the first “Evolution and Genetics” course in Canada and was exploring research into heredity before the field of genetics began to receive recognition. Derick published her research articles in numerous journals including The Botanical Gazette, The Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society, Science, The Canadian Record of Science, and was notably acknowledged in American Men of Science. In 1909, when her former supervisor fell ill, Derick assumed his role as interim Chair of the Botany Department, where she remained for three years until the time of his death, at which point the Department sought a new Chair without recruiting Derick. Instead, with support from some of her peers at McGill, she was appointed Professor of Morphological Botany in 1912, and so, at the age of 52 she became the first woman in Canada to receive the title of Full Professor.

    In addition to her outstanding work in botany and genetics, Derick was a suffragist and publicly supported birth control, which remained illegal in Canada until 1969. She was a Life Member of the Red Cross Society; one of the organisers of the Serbian Relief Committee in Montreal (for which she received the Decoration of the Serbian Cross of Mercy); and, during World War I, Derick took an active part in various patriotic works of the Montreal Local Council of Women and the Montreal Suffrage Association. She was President of the Montreal Suffrage Association from 1913-1919 and, during her “witty” public lectures in this position, she urged that “domestic service” be given the status of a profession and she encouraged women to pursue careers in agriculture. Together with her colleague Maude Abbott, McGill’s pioneer female cardiologist and Curator of the Medical Museum, both were founders and lifelong members of the National Council of Women. An academic to the end, Derick retired from McGill in 1929, due to deteriorating health, but the university awarded her the honorary title of ‘Professor Emerita’ before her death in 1941.